Questioning the cost of knowledge

Faculty, librarians boycott publishing giant Elsevier over cost and open access concerns

Librarian Nasser Saleh says the library must often purchase journals in bundles because of Elsevier’s price structure
Image by: Tiffany Lam
Librarian Nasser Saleh says the library must often purchase journals in bundles because of Elsevier’s price structure

For almost 13,000 academics worldwide, the cost of information is too high.

Professors, researchers and librarians across the world have signed a petition taking a stand against publisher Elsevier’s high subscription prices and open access restrictions. Seven of these people are listed as being from Queen’s.

The online petition, entitled “The Cost of Knowledge,” allows signees to pledge to refrain from publishing, refereeing, and doing editorial work through Elsevier.

“It’s not about signing the petition itself, it’s mainly about what’s behind this petition,” said Nasser Saleh, Queen’s librarian and archivist. “It’s about how this raised and created discussions.”

The bundling of journals is one of the issues that Saleh takes with Elsevier.

“When we deal with publishers, we don’t acquire individual journals. If I have to buy the five top journals in one field then I also have to buy 30 other journals at the same time because they come as a package,” he said.

This means that the library sometimes ends up paying for unwanted journals.

“We don’t need bundles but we need to find flexibility, rather than a take it or leave it approach,” Saleh said.

Saleh added that a large portion of the library’s budget goes towards the subscriptions for Elsevier, but that he can’t cancel these subscriptions because they do provide subscriptions to high demand journals.

Journals are available to everybody at Queen’s, but Saleh said that mainly researchers and graduate students use them.

“My standpoint as a librarian is different than my standpoint as a person,” he said. “I can’t decide to unsubscribe because I have community needs.”

In a February statement entitled “A Message to the Research Community,” on the publisher’s website, Elsevier responded by saying that “Libraries are never forced to take bundled packages” but that “Most choose large collections, however, because they get substantial volume discounts that offer more titles at a lower cost.”

According to an article in the University of Toronto’s student newspaper the Varsity, Elsevier and two other publishers are together responsible for approximately 42 per cent of all of the academic journals produced in the world.

Saleh said that other publishers, such as Springer and Wiley-Blackwell have similar policies to Elsevier.

“Elsevier is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe big publishers,” he said.

Although the petition received over half of its signatures in the first two months of creation, since then, signup has been slower.

“I think that one of the problems is that the petition was targeting one of the publishers only, Elsevier. It wasn’t about the general publishing industry,” he said.

The petition was created by Tim Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge.

Gowers stated in a January blog post that Elsevier’s high prices, “bundling” practices, lack of negotiation and support of the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, were behind the reasons for the petition.

Academics must go through a peer review process before their article can be published in a journal, a process called refereeing. Some of the Queen’s signees have chosen to continue reviewing their peers’ articles. Jean-Michel Nunzi, a chemistry professor, signed the petition in early April.

Both Saleh and Nunzi chose to refrain from publishing and doing editorial work through Elsevier. They both chose to keep refereeing articles published by Elsevier.

“I will not refuse the reviewing work because then I give a penalty to my colleagues and I don’t agree to this,” Nunzi said.



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